Elephant, Piggie, and a Broken Heart

I just spent 13 hours driving from Jackson to Bend in one day. Car rides with my 3 year-old have suddenly become fun and bearable.

During one of my turns in the back seat (aka, the entertainment seat), we were reading Mo Willems’ Are You Ready To Play Outside? (in the Elephant and Piggie series). Whenever I read one of Willems’ books, especially the ones in this series, I marvel at how Willems is a master at writing age-appropriate inference. Often times, I will read a story to Karsten and feel the need to explain something that is inferred, but not specially mentioned or shown. But when I read Willems’ books, I hold back. Elephant and Piggie are drawn with such amazing body language, that kids can infer so much from their expressions. Then, the characters reinforce that inference with dialog. After many reads, during which I would tell Karsten what Piggie was feeling (based on the illustrations) and then have her tell us the same thing herself, I realized just how brilliant Willems is. He encourages kids to really observe the characters (shown in the minimalism of the illustrations) and then confirms their inference with natural (and funny) dialog. My husband is a kindergarten teacher and he agrees. Willems is a master.

Take two. We’re listening to some mix CD from a former student of my husband. Taio Cruz (I didn’t know who we was before this song) croons a peppy rap song, Break Your Heart. The song tells girls not to fall in love with Cruz, because he will break their hearts. Enter inference gone wrong.

After hearing the song, Karsten had this response:

“Breaking your heart sounds like a bad idea because it would take all your love away.”

Collective aawwww, right?

Karsten was visibly shaken. He didn’t want his heart to be broken. My husband had to convince him that we had so much love for him that his heart could never break. (How’s that for setting him up for teenage heartbreak?) When the song came on again later, Karsten thought that the singer was going to cut us all open and take our hearts out. It was getting worse with each listen.

It really struck me then how Karsten takes things so literally. (And how well he listens when I think he’s not. And how little I actually listen to song lyrics.) He’s a pretty emotionally sensitive child, and I realize I want to be aware of what I’m exposing him to. I’m not sure when it’s developmentally appropriate to understand the abstract meaning behind Cruz’s song, but for now, for a while really, I think it will be fine to stick with Mo Willems.

School Is Out!

As the doors swished closed on the bus and my son waved goodbye, my eyes filled with tears. It took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t expected his last day of Kindergarten to be so emotional. Perhaps it’s because he has grown so much in this last year. Blossomed, really. He started the school year as a little boy, and now he is a BOY. A boy full of questions, creativity, and energy.

This week is our first full week of summer break. For us, that means I have both kids at home with me, and we have days full of “after schooling” (additional activities and learning in focus and interest areas), nature walks, swimming lessons, bicycle riding, and playing. And reading. Lots and lots of reading.

Our community has some good reading programs. My son participates in his elementary school program, as well as the one at our local library. Each week, we visit the library to play, do some crafts, return our bagful of books, and borrow a new bagful. So what are we reading to start the summer?

My son: Lots of reading together and reading out loud

The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne

Anything Dr. Suess

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Cressida Cowell

We Are in a Book, Mo Willems

The Good Little Bad Little Pig, Margaret Wise Brown

My daughter: lots of reading together- lots of books with pictures!

The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Bunny Eats Lunch, Michael Dahl

Moonbear, Frank Asch

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

All of Baby Nose to Toes, Victoria Adler

Big Bird’s Guessing Game About Shapes


The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins

Ford County Stories, John Grisham

Inheritance, Christopher Paolini

Lots of books to read, and fun to have. I hope you and your families have fun this summer, both inside books and outside exploring!

The Subjectivity of Art

Every writer who’s ever submitted a manuscript—of any kind—hopes that the receiving agent or editor will instantly fall in love the work.  And it happens. It must, we pre-published writers insist, because we know that the books we read were chosen. It just happens rarely.

A recent rejection letter I received—which BTW was kind, professional, and supportive, even without anything specific to my submission—claimed that the agent was very picky about the work he chooses to represent and will only select manuscripts he can support 100%. Sounds fair. Shoot, sounds like what I would want—either as a writer or an agent. He went on to say that the business is subjective, and that he hoped my project would find an agent who would love it 100%.  Not only fair, it also implied that an agent might currently exist who will love my manuscript, even as it had been rejected thus far.

This got me to thinking about subjectivity. And realizing that I am being unfair in directing my frustration at agents. Come on, I think. Won’t one of you just love my story already? This kind of thinking is unfair because as I reader I can be just as picky.

On my Goodreads account, I rate the novels I’ve read, though I rarely give a review (just not enough time right now). I went back and checked the novels I’d given 5 stars to. 12 out of 165. That’s just 7%. Not very many.

Ratings are a funny thing. For example, I enjoy Cassandra Clare’s books—they often get 4 stars—but find her overuse of semicolons can be tedious at times. Still, she’s got enigmatic characters and great plot twists. I also lovelovelove John Green’s books, all of which have also gotten at least 4 stars (The only one to get 5 was his latest, and a must read, The Fault in Our Stars). Green’s books are intelligent, provocative, and hilarious. Very different from Clare’s (who writes fantasy). How do they both get the same rating? I guess I’m reading them for different reasons, and enjoying them for an even different set reasons. So I’m not sure I can compare them on the same plane. Or at the very least, it is a hard thing to do.

Recently, Katie recommended a book to me. I read it, and found it hard to get into. I ended up skimmed a lot towards the end. Just a week ago, I returned The Book Thief, by Markus Zuzak to the library. Unread. Just couldn’t finish it. Yes, it seemed original and the subject matter interesting. But I just didn’t like it. <Shrug.> I’m just as picky as the agents are.

Now I want to get published like the rest of you (so agents, pick me!), but I now have  a deeper appreciation for what agents are facing when the onslaught of manuscripts downloads into their email system.

Art is a personal, subjective thing. This quality can make it emotional, vulnerable and terrifying. But the same quality is what makes it beautiful. And that’s why I’m still writing.

Happy Birthday!

Please bear with me as I depart from my usual topics to wish my mother a very Happy Birthday!

Photo by Katie Cullinan

Yesterday was a significant birthday for my Mom (I’ll do the gracious thing here, and not mention which one), and we celebrated in style. I sprung for some whole lobsters, along with salt potatoes, local corn on the cob, and rolls. It reminds me of clambakes we used to have every summer, with the lobsters sitting in for the clams this time.

It was yummy. More importantly, we were all together. My Mom and Dad made the four hour trip to my house in the morning, and my brother surprised us by driving down from Massachusetts.

For every birthday, Christmas, and Mother’s Day, all my Mom has ever asked for is “good kids.” That has been extended to “good kids and grandkids.” As you can imagine, that is very difficult to shop for (and potentially hard to deliver when you are a child).

I watched my Mom survey the many pots of cooking food, warm conversation, and her family all around her. And she got a little teary. At that moment, I realized that it wasn’t “good kids” she really wanted. What really makes her happy is being with her family. Silliness, chaos, weirdness and all. For this birthday, we were able to deliver.

Happy Birthday, Mom. We love you very much. Best wishes for many more healthy, happy birthdays!

Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo isn’t your ordinary summer camp. There’s no capture the flag (the last time I played the game, my braces ended up going through my bottom lip); no bug juice or grilled cheese made with Kraft singles; no saggy bunk beds or outhouses (yes, my summer camp did have an outhouse!). In other words, Camp NaNoWriMo has none of the good stuff. Just kidding!

Last November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). Basically, a bunch of people (256,618 to be precise) get together as an online motivational writing group to each write their own 50,000 word novel. Many people aim for much higher word counts. Me, I squeaked by with just under 51,000. But I did it! Along 36,843 other people, I was a NaNoWriMo winner.

Basically, I completed the first draft of a young adult novel that I am now actively revising with the help of my critique group. The process of cranking out 50,000 words in 20 days (yes, I finished early) was fascinating. I woke up early and wrote for 30 minutes. If my son played by himself, I spit out another 350 words. When he napped, man, I could sometimes get in 1500. And of course I wrote into the night. I sent daily email updates to family and friends, and the accountability (and some good whip cracking) kept me going. I loved having the deadline and luckily my story flowed out. Of course, now comes the hard part. Revision.

But I’m putting that project aside so I can do Camp NaNoWriMo, a slimmed-down, summer version of the November event. I’ll still post my word count online, but I’m not planning on being as aggressive. (I’m writing this blog now, for example. Last November, I barely spoke to my family). The way I see it, there’s no point in not trying to complete a first draft. So, today as my sick son took his nap at 8:15 am (!!!), I typed out the first 879 words of my new, untitled WIP. Now, last November I managed over 3000 on my first day, so I’ll have to be okay with a slower pace.

I strongly encourage you to experiment with one of these events. They are free to participate in, you get some great discounts on all sorts of writing related things/services, and it’s just darn cool to say that I wrote a novel (albeit a bad one) in a month. Camp NaNoWriMo has two sessions–June and August.  What respectable camp would have only one? And of course, you can join NaNoWriMo in November.

Hope to see you there!